Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus, I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified. - 1 Corinthians 10:24-27
As I reflect back on my fifteen plus years in professional coaching, I’m often struck by two extremes of philosophical understandings of Athletics and Physical Education within a curriculum of a school setting. The first relegates it to absolutely no importance, as it has nothing to do with classroom instruction and merely needs to be offered for the utilitarian function of stuffing a college application resume. This attitude follows that winning or losing doesn’t matter, everyone can be a winner, and that mere participation is satisfactory in game and sport. A philosophy such as this smacks in the face of my entire educational experience. Upon reflection, my most significant educational influences were my coaches.
On the other hand, many individuals and schools elevate sport to a neo-pagan religion. Family life completely revolves around sport participation, children specialize in sport at extremely young ages, and children seem to be putting all their eggs in a single basket in order to achieve a college scholarship or future professional career. This false philosophy also fails to adequately take the human person into account and does tremendous harm to people and society at large.
The ancients, both St. Paul in the quotation above, and Plato in “The Republic”, point out a different path and properly order sport in the lives and educational process for a soul. They effectively refute both prior educational fallacies.
Plato mentions in “The Republic” that prudence in judgment is the primary goal in the education of “the Guardians” of his society. “The Guardians” will require prudence in making decisions as leaders in the state. The primary mechanism Plato mentions for learning this is through poetry and music (which the Liberal Arts curriculum of Western Academy obviously embraces), but Sport, Physical Education, and play certainly aid in this process. Through music, the soul learns harmony and discord. Through play and sport, the soul learns the incarnation of these true principles. Children learn rules to games. They learn the results when these rules break down. They learn how to create games with a negotiated consensus for the good of the players. They learn that when this consensus doesn’t exist, other children won’t enjoy playing with them. They learn how to handle the glory of success, the agony of defeat, and to put them in their proper perspective. All these lessons contribute more to learned prudence in the symphony of life than a typical classroom setting. This is precisely why play, physical education, and sport are a necessity in any scheduled school day and curriculum.
But St. Paul’s quotation above provides a further and deeper value on sport and athletic education. If you notice, Paul doesn’t mention that everyone will get a ribbon or a prize at the end of the race. He doesn’t say that winning has no importance. He says, “Run so as to win. Every athlete disciplines in every way.” Through sport and competition, the athlete learns physical fortitude and courage. He learns them oftentimes in the most apparent and obvious way, overcoming physical discomfort and suffering. He learns them not necessarily for any imagined utilitarian end, but to encounter and overcome his own physical weaknesses and limits and to grow as a person. And the competition with a quality opponent, as a result, can be a blessing, as it brings out the best in our own play.
Lastly, St. Paul alludes to the transference in acquired virtue through sport. He mentions how the athlete “disciplines his body in every way”. This metaphor allows him to “drive his body and train it” for a much more important spiritual race of lasting consequence. Many of the young men who come through Western Academy have great physical talents and abilities. Some of them have an inclination to discipline themselves in prudence and skill through sport before any other facet of life and curriculum, as they have really grown to love sport through their previous play. As a result, at Western we embrace play and sport in our day and curriculum as we seek to mold the next “Guardians” of our community and society. And we strive to reach new levels of excellence every year in our programs. But not for any of the utilitarian reasons mentioned previously, even though athletic scholarships and future professional athletes would be a welcome by-product. We strive for athletic excellence because we welcome every, and any opportunity to aid in the growth, development, and discipline of boys to become young men. And we know how the courage, fortitude, and discipline learned in one aspect of a boy’s life can transfer throughout the entirety of the incarnated soul of each boy, especially in the areas of the most vital importance as they become men.